Electoral units blaze diverse paths to vibrant consultation

What can electoral units do to make consultation at their annual convention relevant, vibrant — dynamic, even — in an age of cluster reflection gatherings and units comprising several clusters?

Plenty, as it turns out.

Some unit conventions this past October serendipitously benefited from the presence of young people who were energized at the 2013 youth conferences and have been putting their skills to use in the field.

Others planned beforehand how to involve individuals and communities in convention consultation and then executed those strategies with great impact.

Here are a few examples of conventions participants say were memorable and heartening:

Boston, Massachusetts: A “mature and valid” contribution from youth

“For the first time in years, our unit convention this year was a true success,” says Alhan Irwin of Nashua, New Hampshire. “We all left happy with a good feeling of accomplishment and hope.

“We had a good number of young adults (mostly college  students) attend, and [they] were given a main role in conducting and giving their valuable input and ideas.”

Irwin says she has viewed with alarm the aging of Bahá’í communities around her. So “seeing dynamic college students facilitate the convention with such confidence, leadership and efficiency was truly exciting and refreshing.”

When it was time for the consultation, she says, “several of the young adults stood up (probably a total of six or seven), with courage and confidence, and spoke eloquently about their experiences and activities. Their input was mature and valid.”

The unit is shaped like a letter “C” that starts in south-central Maine, wends through parts of New Hampshire and Massachusetts and ends in Boston. The coastal areas it skirts are in a different unit.

And it was impressive “to see so many youth from the Boston area participating,” notes another New Hampshire Bahá’í, Joan Haskell of Merrimack.

“We have traveled to Boston for convention in the past only to find few Bahá’ís from the Boston area. This year, the room was filled with youth from Boston who took a leadership role: shared stories from the youth conferences, participated on an equal level during consultation and taught us a neat song,” she recalls.

“They were eloquent about the topics covered at the conference and how helpful the small breakout groups there had been in allowing them to forge bonds of friendship, set goals and return to their communities on fire.

“I’m carrying the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá from their song: Where there is love, nothing is too much trouble and there is always time.”

East San Diego County, California: Arts add a welcome dimension


Organizers took the bull by the horns to make this year’s convention consultation memorable, says Suellen Treadwell of La Mesa.


The committee … had asked all the communities to incorporate the arts in their community reports. The result was beautiful! The arts added a whole new dimension,” she reports.


“We had videos put together by the friends, songs, a poem, live music, a puppet show, and more. It was really a celebration. And of course, to create these presentations, communities consulted together. In La Mesa, we brainstormed at one Nineteen Day Feast and practiced at the next.


 “We’re definitely looking forward to next year.”


Albuquerque, New Mexico: Consultation with a goal achieves results

When Bill Fernandez of Albuquerque took up the gavel as elected convention chair, his aim was to keep consultation focused.

“This year we didn't have anyone going off on a tangent or pushing an agenda,” he says. “This might have been a result of emphasizing at the start of the session that the goal was to determine what we as a group wanted to elevate to a national level.

“So, mostly the need was for sparking conversation and encouraging participation. I periodically both reiterated the goal of the session and invited contributions with questions like ‘What would we like the National Spiritual Assembly to focus on next year?’ or ‘What have we learned that National needs to know?’”

Topics discussed included the relationship between the Bahá’í community and the American Indian population; support and encouragement for artists; effective use of social media; and retention of young people. A youth authored one of the four recommendations that passed.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Relationships forged as attendees pair up

Consultation was flagging in Milwaukee, says Gary Kerns of Oak Creek, until an attendee suggested that each attendee pair with someone he or she didn’t already know and come up with a suggestion or recommendation.

“It took time to go through the whole process, but it resulted in some excellent suggestions and everyone established at least a relationship with someone new,” says Kerns.

Western Massachusetts: Serving the community-building process

Participants in this unit also paired “with someone they didn't know super well,” says Myra Grassfield of Holyoke, “to develop a question about a way in which they each could progress further in their work to build community.”

For example, a question arose about how to make sure the response loop to 800-22-UNITE calls was completed with a report about the seeker.


“In other words, there are calls coming into the cluster contact and that contact person is passing the seeker's info on to someone in the community, but the trail seems to stop there too often,” she explains.


“This resulted in a resolution on the part of several attendees to create a standard operating procedure for following up on the seeker response in a way that produces useful data to work with in the future.”


It also served, says Grassfield, to highlight “ways in which we can mature in our community-building process as a unit.”


Shahab Rastegar of Westfield says the National Assembly’s letter to conventions helped to focus the consultation.


Questions were projected for all to see and “grouped in a logical manner,” and chair Holly Hanson asked attendees to comment on these questions one at a time.


Missoula, Montana: Three priorities and a discovery


Convention in this unit comprising the entire states of Montana and Wyoming found success, too, by grouping topics.


David L. Moore of Missoula, who chaired, says suggested topics were posted on a whiteboard.


“Then we voted, by raising hands, on priorities, with the plan to consult on the top three,” says Moore. “That prioritizing process went very well because of the thoughtful and careful attention of the attendees, who pointed out overlaps and ways to consolidate the topics.”


The top three, he says, were building Bahá’í culture (consolidated with a number of initial topics); youth; and traveling teaching (consolidated with homefront pioneering).


Moore says consultation was further focused when “knowledgeable participants, some from the Regional Bahá’í Council, helped tie the consultation to specific directives of the Five Year Plan.”


And as it unfolded, he says, “there was a sense, and this was expressed explicitly, that we have the infrastructure in place with the core activities and the basic Bahá’í community functions to move forward with the plan,” he says.


“Certainly many in the room were energized toward action that they are bringing back to their communities.”


Moore points to the depth of discussion and a connection to the goals of the Five Year Plan as keys.


“There were young mothers with babes in arms who stood up to call attention to the need for building a Bahá’í culture and community for their children,” he recounts.


That topic in particular “received a number of insightful and spiritual comments that resonated with the core gathering,” says Brandon Reintjes of Missoula.


And because of it, says Jennifer Doney of Ennis, Montana, participants left “with a great desire to delve into the study of the Universal House of Justice guidance of the Five Year Plan and expand our learning together.”

Not only that, she says, “the friends took a hard look at breaking down the false dichotomy of Bahá’í community and greater community.”

Six Bahá’ís traveled from Wyoming for the proceedings and carried with them absentee ballots from other believers.


Sun City, Arizona: A strategy for quantity, quality


Vicky English says the host Spiritual Assembly of Sun City crafted a strategy for increasing attendance and creating an experience it hopes will pay dividends all year:


1.       Repeated invitations, starting in April!

2.       Focused consultation. The National Assembly’s letter was broken down into paragraphs, with questions relating each to the Five Year Plan goals and topics of recent Feast messages. Groups of five or six — including a Persian-speaking group — consulted on the letter and reported back to the convention. “Everyone was engaged, not just the vocal few,” says English.

3.       Inclusion of Persian speakers. “The cluster Persian coordinator translated the invitation and led the Persian consultation group,” she says. “As a result, Persian-speaking Bahá’ís who had never before come to unit convention attended.”

4.       Arts and games. Music included a sing-along and a professional singer accompanied by a youth on African drum. Games included a mixer and Bahá’í trivia.


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